Forestry chief: Fire's end still days away
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- As more than 14,000 firefighters battled erratic winds and physical exhaustion trying to control Southern California's colossal wildfires, the state's forestry chief said Thursday it could be a week before crews can dampen the flames.
"Within the next week or so we hope the hot flames will be out," California Department of Forestry Director Andrea Tuttle said. But she cautioned, "Don't commit me on that. ... We don't know what the winds will do."
A nine degree drop in temperature in Los Angeles and high humidity helped quell some of the flames Thursday. But the winds -- which reached up to 40 mph -- fanned flames, compounding already overwhelming challenges for firefighters.
The wildfires have been blamed for 20 fatalities, including that of one firefighter. More than 729,000 acres have burned, and 2,600 homes have been destroyed, fire officials said. The Cedar Fire in San Diego county has now consumed more than 272,000 acres, making it the largest in California history.
"We will never forget the people who stood up to Mother Nature's fury," said Gov. Gray Davis. "They are standing up to the worst of Mother Nature."
Davis estimated the damage so far at $2 billion. But Tuttle said officials are now moving into the damage assessment phase, and the figures likely will change.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is working with California officials to assist victims. FEMA said it began distributing assistance checks Wednesday to victims who had registered for help.
Davis' spokesman said Thursday that FEMA last week turned down an emergency request Davis made in April for federal help to clear dead trees from counties now engulfed in flames. (Full story)
Davis said Wednesday that he would ask Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask the federal government to absorb all of the state's firefighting costs. Davis also waived a California rule Wednesday requiring towns to cover 25 percent of firefighting costs.
President Bush signed a declaration Thursday adding Riverside County east of Los Angeles to the list of four California counties marked as federal disaster areas -- paving the way for federal assistance.
Schwarzenegger met with Vice President Dick Cheney in Washington. Speaking to reporters afterward, he said, "We talked about expediting the funds for ... the people whose homes burned and their businesses burned."
Schwarzenegger cut his trip short to return to California, where he is getting regular briefings from Davis.
Davis said help has come in from Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Washington, as well as Canada. The U.S. Navy is lending helicopters, he said, noting that the state will take help "from anyone who will give it."
Cedar Fire about 40 percent contained
The two areas of greatest concern, Davis said, are San Diego and San Bernardino near Lake Arrowhead, east of Los Angeles.
By noon, the Cedar Fire in San Diego was nearly 40 percent contained, up from just 15 percent the night before, county fire officials said. Still, fire officials predicted it would take until next Wednesday to fully contain the blaze.
The Cedar Fire is blamed for 14 fatalities, including the death of firefighter Steve Rucker, 38. Twenty-five firefighters were injured in the blaze, state fire officials said.
Firefighters worked Thursday to protect the historic gold-mining town of Julian, about 50 miles northeast of San Diego.
The Cedar Fire has destroyed about 1,500 homes and forced the evacuation of about 50,000, San Diego County officials said.
The 56,000-acre Paradise Fire, in the same county's Valley Center area, was 25 percent contained, county fire officials said.
The officials estimated the Paradise Fire will be contained by Saturday evening.
Two people have been killed in that blaze, and 10 were injured, including six firefighters, county fire officials said.
East of Los Angeles, the Old Fire and Grand Prix Fire, which merged earlier this week, threatened the San Bernardino Mountains communities of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear.
Fire officials said that fire has been responsible for four deaths, scorched more than 130,000 acres, and destroyed more than 600 homes in the San Bernardino region.
San Bernardino Battalion Chief George Corley said his teams were trying to build areas that would "catch" the fire -- partly by using bulldozer lines to guide it away from homes.
Bulldozer lines are a fire controlling device that use bulldozer blades to scrape the ground, removing flammable material – plant life, leaves and branches --from a swath of land in hopes of preventing the fire from crossing the scraped area.
The Old/Grand Prix Fire was about 40 percent contained by Thursday afternoon, San Bernardino County officials said. Officials believe both fires were caused by arson.
Witnesses said they saw a man throw something out of a van and into the brush Saturday, triggering a fire, said Sgt. Dave Caddell of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Investigators released a sketch of the man and have received more than 500 calls so far, he said.
The reward for finding the man has climbed to $110,000, including $60,000 in private donations, Caddell said.
The causes of California's other blazes have not been determined.
On the west side of Los Angeles, the Simi Valley Fire has destroyed more than 100,000 acres in Ventura County and parts of northwestern Los Angeles County.
Firefighters have contained about one-third of the fire, but winds threatened to quickly change that.
While the end may be almost in sight, as Tuttle said, it certainly is not imminent.
Randy Clauson, San Bernardino Battalion Chief, said firefighters are "trying to get rest as much as we can. ... That's our primary goal right now -- to keep ourselves as safe as we can.
"Fatigue sets in, people start to lose some of the edge," he said. "We are very aware of that, so we are trying to mitigate that as we get more troops in."
CNN Correspondents Martin Savidge, Jeff Flock, Miguel Marquez, Frank Buckley, and Daryn Kagan contributed to this report.